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The pursuit of folk devils frequently intensifies into a mass movement that is called a moral panic. When a moral panic is in full swing, the folk devils are the subject of loosely organized but pervasive campaigns of hostility through gossip and the spreading of urban legends. The mass media sometimes get in on the act or attempt to create new folk devils in an effort to promote controversy. Sometimes the campaign against the folk devil influences a nation's politics and legislation.
The concept of the folk devil was introduced by sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972, in his study Folk Devils and Moral Panics, which analysed media controversies concerning Mods and Rockers in the United Kingdom of the 1960s.
Historic and modern cases
The basic pattern of agitations against folk devils can be seen in the history of witchhunts and similar manias of persecution; the histories of predominately Catholic and Protestant European countries present examples of adherents of the rival Western Christian faith as folk devils; minorities and immigrants have often been seen as folk devils; in the long history of anti-Semitism, which frequently targets Jews with allegations of dark, murderous practices, such as blood libel; or the Roman persecution of Christians that blamed the military reverses suffered by the Roman Empire on the Christians' abandonment of paganism.
In modern times, political and religious leaders in many nations have sought to present atheists and secularists as deviant outsiders who threaten the social and moral order. The identification of folk devils may reflect the efforts of powerful institutions to displace social anxieties.
- Cohen, S. (1973). Folk Devils and Moral Panics. St Albans: Paladin
- Duke, Barry (30 October 2010). "Christians, Muslims and Jews urged to unite in a war against atheists". The Freethinker. Retrieved 10 June 2012.